Vigilance and fitness in grey partridges Perdix perdix: the effects of group size and foraging-vigilance trade-offs on predation mortality.
1. Vigilance increases fitness by improving predator detection but at the expense of increasing starvation risk. We related variation in vigilance among 122 radio-tagged overwintering grey partridges Perdix perdix (L.) across 20 independent farmland sites in England to predation risk (sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus L., kill rate), use of alternative antipredation behaviours (grouping and use of cover) and survival.
2. Vigilance was significantly higher when individuals fed in smaller groups and in taller vegetation. In the covey period (in early winter when partridges are in flocks), vigilance and use of taller vegetation was significantly higher at sites with higher sparrowhawk predation risk, but tall vegetation was used less by larger groups. Individuals were constrained in reducing individual vigilance by group size and habitat choice because maximum group size was determined by overall density in the area during the covey period and by the formation of pairs at the end of the winter (pair period), when there was also a significant two-fold increase in the use of tall cover.
3. Over the whole winter individual survival was higher in larger groups and was lower in the pair period. However, when controlling for group size, mean survival decreased as vigilance increased in the covey period. This result, along with vigilance being higher at sites with increasing with raptor risk, suggests individual vigilance increases arose to reduce short-term predation risk from raptors but led to long-term fitness decreases probably because high individual vigilance increased starvation risk or indicated longer exposure to predation. The effect of raptors on survival was less when there were large groups in open habitats, where individual partridges can probably both detect predators and feed efficiently.
4. Our study suggests that increasing partridge density and modifying habitat to remove the need for high individual vigilance may decrease partridge mortality. It demonstrates the general principle that antipredation behaviours may reduce fitness long-term via their effects on the starvation-predation risk trade-off, even though they decrease predation risk short-term, and that it may be ecological constraints, such as poor habitat (that lead to an anti-predation behaviour compromising foraging), that cause mortality, rather than the proximate effect of an anti-predation behaviour such as vigilance.